Season Finale, Season Review

It’s been a week since the finale of the Minnesota Orchestra’s 2014-2015 season… a season filled with remarkable achievements that I don’t know I could have imagined at this time last year. And of course, things didn’t end with that final concert… the Orchestra jumped right into a week-long, monster recording session to finish up their album of Sibelius’s Third, Sixth, and Seventh Symphonies.

But before it gets any later, I wanted to share my feelings on the final concert, as well as the season as a whole.

* * *

What a spectacular concert the season finale was—a concert that satisfied intellectually, emotionally, and musically. The program was the Sibelius Sixth and Seventh, paired with Mahler’s First Symphony in the second half.

And it made for a thrilling combination.

As I’ve mentioned earlier on my blog, Sibelius and Mahler had a famous conversation about the nature of the symphony; Sibelius said he appreciated the form’s tight structure and strict inner logic, while Mahler arguing that it needed to be expansive and encompass the entire world. The works on the program were brilliant manifestations of their respective approaches, and provided a masterclass of two complementary thoughts on symphonic writing from around the turn of the last century.

I’ve mentioned before that while Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony is among his least-performed symphonies, it remains one of my favorite pieces of music. I love its reflective nature—it shimmers with light, but feels introspective, and reveals its ideas subtly. And in this regard, Osmo’s earlier recording with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra has long been one of my benchmarks.

How fascinating it is to hear the larger Minnesota Orchestra tackle this work, making it richer and more present. I don’t mean this as any criticism of Lahti, but Minnesota’s fuller strings created a different blend and balance with the other instruments, which in turn made the inherent luminosity of the work burn just a bit more brightly. But the performance was still delicate too—the richness of sound never became too bold or forceful, as if it had been written by Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, or any of the other late Romantics.

Did this new version stack up?  Since I can say that at the end of the first movement I realized my face was wet with tears, I’d have to say… yes.  Yes it did.

The larger, bolder sound was even more evident in the Seventh—appropriately so. In fact, Osmo and Orchestra gave a powerful reading of the Seventh that was absolutely thrilling. As I said in my earlier remarks, the Seventh takes Sibelius’s approach to compression and structural integrity to its final expression, creating a work where all the traditional movements of the traditional symphony are seamlessly fused into a single movement. It is a marvel of musical construction, and sometimes the so easy to focus on the structure that you lose the music.

Not so here; it was a white-knuckle ride that soared.

And one thing to point out. This concert featured a great number of musical solos from within the orchestra, and they were all handled brilliantly. But this was Principal Trombone Doug Wright’s concert. Hands down.

In Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony, the trombone calls out at three critical moments, which serve as anchors for the piece… and Doug’s playing of these critical moments was amazing, in a particularly challenging context. The Seventh isn’t just tightly integrated in terms of musical structure, but in musical tone, too. To work, the trombone has to emerge from the strings—not as a counterbalance to them or in opposition to them, but organically from them. And that’s exactly what Doug did, sounding for all the world like some sort of brass violin that blossomed into its own sound. And he did so in a soaring musical line that gathered up all the swirling sound around it and started off in a new direction, but was still organically linked to all that came before. It was remarkable.

This led to a thrilling conclusion that was so… definitive. As if there was nothing left to say about music at all. As many have noted, hearing that final C-major chord, it is easy to understand why Sibelius chose never to compose another symphony, although he lived another 30 years.

But Osmo and the Orchestra did have more to say.

The second half of the concert was given over to Mahler’s First Symphony, Titan. And after the tautness and compression of the first half, this work felt like a rip-roarin’ blast… an extended encore to the entire season.

It is funny… Mahler is not one of my favorite composers, but my wife has no use for him at all. She has asked to be on a “one Mahler work per every 12 months” schedule.

Until this concert.

I believe as we walked to the lobby, her exact words were, “Well, I have to eat my words. That was fantastic, it had everything. Loved it!”

It’s easy to see why. The First Symphony has a wonderful collection of moments, assembled like a mosaic to give a magnificent, heroic whole. There were dramatic instrumental solos, powerful musical lines… even a wonderfully creepy, minor-key version of “Frère Jacques.”

But something else we both greatly appreciated—hearing this huge work played out by a top-flight orchestra, you’re reminded of the sheer physicality of the music. You can feel it as that wall of sound slams into you… especially at the final moments when the horns stand and blast out their tune, as if to shatter the walls of Jericho. But also, you also see the physical labor that goes into the playing the instruments, as the musicians dig into the strings to draw out the sound, or the percussionists throw themselves into at drums and cymbals. Humans are making that wonderful, cosmic racket… brilliant humans at the top of their prowess who know exactly what they’re doing.

They didn’t just deliver a concert… they delivered a performance.

Bravo.

* * *

But as these performances marked the end of the season, I wanted to say a few words about the season as a whole. More specifically, I wanted to follow the lead of my colleague and fellow blogger Emily Hogstad over at Song of the Lark and provide a “Top 10” of my favorite concert experiences from the past year.

That said, I should point out that this is a highly personal, highly idiosyncratic list. As much as I love and support the Orchestra, I simply cannot attend every event it puts on. I’ve missed all kinds of concerts—including some I very much wanted to attend—and understand that several of those missed performances were fantastic. So my list does not pretend to be exhaustive.

Plus, as a singer in the Minnesota Chorale, I sing in several performances a year, which completely warps my perceptions, too.

But nevertheless, let me share my favorite moments, in no particular order except the order I thought of them.

1) Mahler’s Second Symphony, Resurrection. This was a concert that had it all, starting with performances that were musically en pointe, but more importantly were profoundly emotional. But also for me, it was such a powerful experience because I was a performer, too, and I was able to channel that same musicality and emotion into my own performance. And, as I mentioned on my blog post at the time (which got a shout-out from the legendary music critic, Alex Ross!), it was a chance for we as the Minnesota Chorale to welcome Osmo back personally. I don’t think that all concerts should be “about” something… sometimes when that happens, the result feels forced and artificial. But that wasn’t the case here. This wasn’t an abstract description of a journey loss and rebirth… everyone onstage and in the house keenly felt that journey themselves. It was a perfect concert to announce, “We’re back and better than ever!”

2) Verdi’s Requiem. This is another time when I joined the Orchestra as a singer on stage. What a phenomenal concert! It was my first time working with Maestro Abbado, and hope it isn’t my last. I loved what he brought to the performances; he had the audience with him at every moment along the way. And who can forget Brian Mount bashing the heck out of two bass drums simultaneously as the dreaded Day of Judgment approached!

3) Eric Whitacre, Deep Field. Rounding out the performances I took part in, I wanted to add this concert… not for any one piece, but for the totality of the experience. Eric is, of course, a world-famous choral composer, and I would have loved to have more choral music to perform. But it was fascinating being a part of this concert, with so many new works (four world premieres!) on the program, and a decidedly different vibe from the house. I loved being in a kind of musical laboratory, taking risks when we had no idea how things would come together… and I loved the audience response. They ate that concert up. And stellar solo work by Manny Laureano and Marni Hougham for Quiet City.

4) Cuba Performances. The two concerts presented in Havana were not just highlights of the season, but were also a thrill of lifetime for me personally—as readers know, I was fortunate enough to travel to Havana and cover the concerts for MinnPost, with generous support from my readers (a million thanks to all of you!). If I had to pick one highlight from the two concerts, it would be the paired performances of the Cuban and American national anthems. But both concerts were zany, thrilling, and awe-inspiring. I believe we’ll continue to see the impact of this Cuban tour for years to come.

5) Shakespeare’s Star-Crossed Lovers. This concert, part of the Shakespeare Winterfest, was a blast. In truth, the core of the concert (Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet) became the core of the second Cuban concert, although we didn’t know that at the time. This was again an event where many elements fused together into a wonderful whole—there were actors in the lobby, discussions, and fantastic performances. A perfect blend of music and theater. (Plus, there was a pause before Osmo took the stage before the West Side Story dances, and in that silence a quick-witted soul from the Orchestra—you know who you are—gave the familiar whistle opening.  Well played, quick-witted soul from the Orchestra… well played.)

6) Sibelius’s The Tempest. This concert, part of the same Shakespeare Winterfest, was also a treat, pairing Beriloz’s Les nuits d’été with Sibelius’s rarely performed music from The Tempest. It was made all the more exciting when a very last-minute illness forced a last-minute replacement of the mezzo soloist. The Berlioz is stunning, but what a treat to hear Sibelius—usually someone we think of as being a tightly-controlled composer—let loose with a score brimming with magic and magical effects.

7) Renée Fleming. This stand-alone gala at the very start of the season was perfection, with great music, great musical personalities, and more. Given all that has happened to the Orchestra over the last few years, Renée’s performance of “Take Care of this House” from Bernstein’s flop of a musical, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, was deeply moving. Perfection.

8) New Year’s Celebration with Sylvia McNair. Speaking of gala presentations, the New Year’s Eve concert with Sylvia McNair was an absolute joy. Fantastic dance music, Gershwin, and all the fizz you could hope for on stage… but the after party was even better! Being in Orchestra Hall as we counted down to midnight, and letting loose with live jazz in the lobby was spectacular.

9) Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony. This piece really is a showstopper, and really needs to be experienced live. Take that quiet opening, which later gives birth to one of the most glorious sunrises in music—there are no words to describe the physical impact of that glorious blast of light when it finally comes. It was also a thrill to have Edo de Waart leading the performance, as he is one of the foremost champions of the work. As an aside, it was great fun to watch Ellen Smith demonstrate proper alphorn-playing technique… and her telescoping, collapsible alphorn was a big hit with the crowd!

10) Sibelius and Mahler. Which brings us to the sensational season finale, featuring Sibelius’s Sixth and Seventh Symphony (which were subsequently recorded by Swedish label BIS) and Mahler’s First Symphony, Titan. The taut Sibelius symphonies were a perfect match for the volcanic Mahler, giving us a concert that managed to be cerebral and visceral at the same time. Can’t wait for the recording!

* * *

That’s my list of the top 10 concerts of the year. Thank you to the Orchestra for providing so many thrilling moments over this past season—I’ve already renewed for next year! Any other thoughts about the season?

Xochipilli

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